Government agencies should look to the Tillamook Forest as a template for restoring burned timberland, former Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson told a Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Forum audience.

"Changing federal forest policy for the whole United States is obviously going to be a heavy lift, " Robertson said Monday at Rogue Valley Country Club. "Using something like the Tillamook Forest, and its tremendous success of recovery, is doable."

The alternative is risking long-term deterioration, he said. Ignoring scorched forests or taking years to come up with a recovery plan won't suffice.

"The one thing, regardless of partisan politics, that people come together on, is they don't like to see these national forests burn up," Robertson said. "As we found out, they don't like to see them neglected after those huge fires occur; that message is resonating. One of the best opportunities will be a model project on the next fire — whether it be in Montana, Idaho, Oregon or wherever — that releases the federal agency from this huge maze of rules, restrictions and regulations, and lets the foresters actually do what needs to be done, and then monitor it."

Robertson related two tours of burn areas several years apart. The first trip was with a wide-ranging group in 2002 through a 1996 burn area.

"It's difficult to express appropriately the shock and surprise, and really the anger and frustration, that tour created in the people attending that day," Robertson said. "Visualizing several thousand acres of prime old-growth timber, dead, dying and rotting."

The realization, he said, that there would be no recovery and no effort at reforestation, was overwhelming. Members of the tour from all walks — educators, tribal, civic and industry leaders — went on to form Communities for Healthy Forests.

That same year, lightning ignited the Timbered Rock fire in Jackson County's Elk Creek watershed. The fire burned nearly 29,000 acres, about half owned by Boise Cascade and the other half controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

Later that year, Communities for Healthy Forests put together a similar tour, which included national BLM Director Kathleen Clarke.

"You could see the smoke, it was still smoldering," Robertson said. "The other thing you could see was an enormous amount of activity on the private land, cutting the timber, putting it on the trucks, and trucks moving out.

"As we approached the area and got out of the vans, you could see the director looking at the Boise land and glancing over at the BLM land. She turned to her staff person and said: 'Why aren't we doing that on our land?' The staff person tried to explain when fire occurs on federal land, it's a little harder to start activities in timely manner."

Robertson said it was another three years before the BLM put together an approved plan that resulted in removal of hazardous trees along roads and scattered replanting.

"Today, the Boise land is a healthy growing forest of 25- to 30-foot tall Douglas fir," he said. "On the BLM land there is some scattered reproduction and lots of brush."

It was clear, he said, that decision makers at the top really don't understand what happens after wildfires.

Robertson, former president of the Association of O&C Counties, said the key is to follow what the state and private land owners, along with Clatsop and Tillamook counties, did in response to the Tillamook Burn. The goal was to recover the landscape and regain the amenities generations Oregonians had enjoyed.

"They succeeded even their wildest dreams," Robertson said.

Today, the 364,000-acre Tillamook Forest contains 11 state parks, he said, as well as four of the most productive fish rivers in the country, sustainable timber harvests and vast recreational opportunities.

The same can be done in Southern Oregon, he said. "All we have to do is follow the example set by Oregonians before us."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.